The battle against the Shadow King has steadily intensified over the course of Legion’s second season, but writers Noah Hawley and Nathaniel Halpern ditch that overarching plot in “Chapter 12.” David Haller is on a psychic voyage through his girlfriend’s memories in this character study of Sydney Barrett, and the specific focus makes for a story that is leaner than the usual Legion episode, but has significantly more emotional depth. This is the shortest chapter of the season thus far, and with the exception of an interlude showing Division 3 dealing with the aftermath of the monk’s death, most of these 42 minutes are spent inside Syd’s head.
“Chapter 12” delivers exactly what I was asking for in last episode’s recap, using the mental-maze conceit to explore a character’s accumulated trauma and create a satisfying arc where they push through the pain to become a stronger person. The interlude reveals that everyone affected by the monk’s virus was cured after his death, but then why are Syd and David trapped in this mental loop? It’s not made explicit in the episode, but I think it comes down to their mutant powers and how that changes their perception of the world and relationship with each other.
Their superpowers give them a connection that ordinary people can’t comprehend, and while others would need to rely on conversation to reveal these deep, dark secrets, Syd is able to put David directly inside her experience. Syd was hit by the virus when David first entered her mind, but once the monk died, this stopped being a mission to save Syd from a malevolent outside force. It’s now an opportunity for Syd to open herself up to her lover, to help him understand the trauma that shaped her life. David wants to go on this journey and solve the puzzle, no matter how many times Syd makes him repeat her story until he figures it out.
The first trip is a simplified look at Syd’s upbringing, one that offers the broad strokes of how her mutation alienates her by prohibiting physical contact. With each new trip, David bears witness to more of Syd’s past and learns new details about how she’s been treated by the world. He sees the emotional gulf that grows between Syd and her sophisticate mother (Lily Rabe, who doesn’t get much dialogue, but projects longing sadness in her face). He sees Syd take on bullies and embrace punk culture and cut herself with a dull blade to remedy her spiritual numbness. David already knows about her teenage sexual awakening with her mother’s boyfriend, and while it isn’t a memory that Syd is eager to share, he eventually watches this drama unfold in the episode’s most heartbreaking scene.
Ellen Kuras was the cinematographer of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and she’s an inspired choice to direct an episode that focuses on memory and how it informs a romantic relationship. Kuras understands that memory is a collection of mental images and impressions that are changing over time, and she creates expressive images on the screen that quickly imprint on the viewer’s mind. The overhead shot of Syd’s mother spooning her daughter with a blanket between the two of them so there’s no skin-to-skin contact. The long shot of Syd on the dance floor of a punk bar, being swept away in the waves of moshing bodies. These shots set a base level of understanding that becomes richer as specific moments repeat over and over again with new pieces of information.
When three mean girls bully Syd as a child, she’s pushed into the corner of the frame to emphasize her trapped feeling, and that tight formation of three girls is scattered when Syd taps into her mutant power as a teen. That bullying becomes more severe when Syd turns down the unwanted sexual advantages of a teen boy, and she uses her powers to switch bodies with the boy and violently beat the three girls with his lacrosse stick. It’s a brutal, frightening sequence, and the episode shifts into horror mode when Syd uses her abilities with intent. The most harrowing example is her seduction of her mother’s boyfriend, and there’s no sense of triumph in the telling of these events. There’s a strong undercurrent of dread, and while the viewer knows where this is leading and the massive trauma it inflicts on everyone involved, Syd is simply a bored teenager making a selfish decision without considering the consequences.
Music plays an important role in setting the mood for these flashbacks, beginning with Bon Iver’s “22 (Over Soon)” for the introduction of young Syd and her mother. The song combines serenity and melancholy — just as Syd’s feelings of discovery are undercut by her detachment from the rest of the world — and it transitions into a gentle instrumental track as Syd’s mother reads from a recent work, discussing how some people are strong at the broken places and how survival has become a curse in modern psychology. Her words are essential to this episode’s message, even if the reading is interrupted by Syd’s scream when a guest innocently taps her. This touch and the judgmental stares of her mother’s friends send Syd reeling, and The National’s “Turtleneck” starts to play for the start of Syd’s punk stage, adding an aggressive energy to the soundtrack that heightens the adolescent turbulence. Tame Impala’s “It Is Not Meant to Be” and a cover of Cream’s “White Room” are also used later in the episode, and these music cues match the tonal shifts in the script to distinguish David’s numerous trips.
A museum exhibit of Egon Schiele’s artwork is a recurring location in Syd’s memory, and while his paintings are examined in relation to Syd’s life, his work also has a connection to David Haller’s comic-book roots. David’s co-creator, artist Bill Sienkiewicz, was inspired by Schiele’s Self-Portrait for the character’s original design, and he took visual cues from Schiele’s expressionist imagery for David’s first comic story. Sensuality is a key element of Schiele’s work, but it would be wrong to assume that Syd is attracted to his paintings because they tap into feelings that are otherwise unstimulated by her isolated lifestyle. It doesn’t appear onscreen, but Self-Portrait becomes a major topic of discussion for David and Syd: He sees an image of a trapped person unable to make any sort of connections with the outside world, while she sees a person who still manages to survive despite immense suffering.
Detachment is at the base of Rachel Keller’s performance in this episode, and the adult Syd isn’t engaged with David when they talk. At first, she acts like she doesn’t know him, and she refuses to warm up until he learns the lesson she wants him to learn. He finally gets there after seeing Syd seduce her mother’s boyfriend, realizing that this isn’t the story of a little girl whose mommy couldn’t hug her, or who grew up wishing a prince’s kiss would erase the damage. The story is the accumulation of all this damage, and how it makes Syd strong instead of weak. Syd avoids eye contact at the start of this scene, but she finally turns to David when he quotes Rick Moody’s The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven, the book associated with her teenage years: “Junkies and masochists and hookers and those who have squandered everything are the ring of brightest angels around heaven.”
Syd believes life is a war, and the things they endure are the battles that punctuate that experience. Some are won, many are lost, but you have to fight until you can’t fight anymore. Love is a sweet idea, but it’s not the thing that will save humanity in the approaching apocalypse. Love is what they are fighting to save, and pain is what makes them strong enough to do it. Scars are armor, and God loves sinners best because their fire burns brightest. This speech isn’t an especially graceful breakdown of the episode’s themes, but Rachel Keller imbues it with feeling, making for an especially romantic moment as these two fighters bond over the pain of their past.
When David and Syd reawaken in Division 3, the organization is in total chaos. All of the people infected by the virus are awake and they have demands, and the episode ends with Lenny back in a physical body and being taken into Division 3 custody. We may not have seen Amahl Farouk in this episode, but there were plenty of developments offscreen, which I presume we’ll learn about soon. Maybe next week we’ll get a comprehensive look at Lenny’s past, because Legion is at its best when it’s using mutant powers to take unconventional roads to character development.